I first wrote about former marine captain Seth Moulton three years ago–and he got ticked off at me. The story was about the leadership potential of the post-9/11 generation of veterans. I described Seth, who is 35, as “the” Harvard valedictorian in June 2001. “That’s not right,” he corrected me. “I was a commencement speaker. There were others. You make it sound like I’m bragging.” I wasn’t surprised that he got up in my face, though. When I’d first interviewed him, he said of his generation of veterans, “We hate the divisive politics of the baby-boom generation. They’re running the country into the ground.” Oof, I replied.
Moulton’s commencement speech was notable because he used the occasion to announce that he was joining the Marines. He said it was his civic responsibility to serve his country. If he didn’t, someone else would have had to take his place in Iraq, a war he thought was “crazy.” He served four tours there, the first two as leader of a combat platoon involved in heavy fighting. But Moulton’s real distinction was his ability to put together teams of Iraqis to build things. General David Petraeus heard about this and asked Moulton to assemble a team–architects, engineers, construction workers–to build a fort on the Iran border. He would be competing against an American private contractor, who had won a similar contract on the border. Moulton’s Iraqi team finished the job in one-third the time as the private contractor and at one-fifth the cost.
Three years later, moulton is running for Congress in Massachusetts’ Sixth District, which covers the suburbs north of Boston. He is running as a Democrat against John Tierney, 63, a nine-term Democratic incumbent. The winner of the Sept. 9 primary will face Richard Tisei, a formidable moderate Republican who is gay and who nearly beat Tierney in 2012. I know the district well, having begun my career covering politics in Peabody, Mass., centuries ago. Indeed, I covered Tierney’s uncle: city councillor James “Silver Fox” Tierney, of whom the city purchasing manager once said, “If we’d had the wisdom to send the Silver Fox to the [state legislature], he might have put half the city on the payroll.”
That is what politics is like in Boston, or used to be. John Tierney isn’t as colorful as his uncle. He has been reliable but not particularly inspiring. He has been a lockstep liberal vote. When you ask him about the paralysis in Washington, he will cite several recent cases of bipartisan triumph–the Veterans Affairs reform bill–but ultimately blames it all on the Republicans, with some good reason. He is a strong favorite to win the primary, well organized, well funded and well endorsed, by Senator Elizabeth Warren among others.
But he has two very serious problems. The first is the tinge of corruption, which stems from his wife’s rather sketchy family–two brothers, one on the lam in Antigua, who were indicted for their involvement in illegal gambling activities. Tierney’s wife Patrice pleaded guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns as part of the case. The brothers said the Congressman knew everything. A close friend of Tierney’s described the brothers as “dirtbags” who were getting back at Tierney because he refused to help them. The scandal was the big issue when the Republican Tisei nearly beat Tierney in 2012. It remains semitoxic.
In August, retired general Stanley McChrystal endorsed Moulton–the general’s first venture into partisan politics–and said the race was about “character.” I asked Tierney what he felt about that, and he said, “Well, [Moulton] worked for the guy.” Which was not true: McChrystal noted how painful it was for an Army officer to endorse a Marine.
Tierney’s other problem is that this may just be the year when the public starts to toss out incumbents on general principle. I saw several people approach Moulton during a day of campaigning and tell him that it was time for Tierney to go. Moulton has, sadly, become more prudent about what comes out of his mouth–and he has refused to distinguish himself from Tierney on most issues. He’s running on freshness and dynamism. He’s shown some of that in his campaign, joining his staff and volunteers in public-service projects throughout the district. And with more decisions looming on Iraq, he says, “the veterans on the committees that make those decisions shouldn’t only be Republicans.”
At a lovely Democratic Party reception in Gloucester harbor, the local establishment came together to support Tierney. He gave a relatively rousing stump speech, but his friends seemed worried. Jean Villa, a local activist who ran his first campaign, said, “I’ve been talking issues with him forever. He knows his stuff.” But, she added, “I always have a sense of how a race is breaking. This time, I’m just not sure.”
This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.